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12 Pantry Staples for a Healthy Diet

by Sarah Cimperman, ND

A healthy diet is essential for a healthy body. One of the easiest ways to eat well is to cook at home, where you control the quality of ingredients. The foods you keep in your kitchen are the ones you’re going to cook and eat, so stocking a pantry full of healthy choices is a good way to make positive changes to any diet. Here are some staples? to put on your grocery list if you don't already have them on hand.?

#1 | Cold-Pressed Oils 
Oils that are liquid at room temperature are high in unsaturated fatty acids. Due to their chemical structure, unsaturated fats are unstable and they react in the presence of heat and light to undergo oxidation, a reaction that damages them and promotes inflammation in the body. Liquid oils can be damaged when they are extracted with heat, so always buy ones that have been cold-pressed. They can also be damaged during cooking, so it’s best not to cook them at all. Look for cold-pressed extra virgin olive, walnut, and flaxseed oils and store them in air-tight containers the fridge. If they solidify, keep a small amount at room temperature in a dark glass container for daily use and refill it frequently.

#2 | High-Temperature Cooking Fats
Saturated fatty acids are stable at high temperatures and can withstand heat during cooking. These include coconut oil and animal fats like butter and ghee. Ghee is clarified butter, which means that the milk solids have been removed because they have a tendency to burn. Duck fat can be purchased in glass jars or you can collect fat yourself when you cook pasture-raised and grass-fed meats. (Place a fine mesh sieve over a glass container, pour the warm liquid fat through, cool, cover, and refrigerate.) Buy ghee in glass jars or make it yourself using good quality butter from pasture-raised or grass-fed cows. (Melt the butter and simmer it gently until the milk solids separate, turn brown, and sink to the bottom, then pour off the liquid fat into a glass jar and cool, then cover.) 

#3 | Vinegar
Vinegar is a fermented food that supports good digestion. It may even help lower blood sugar. One study found that consuming two teaspoons of vinegar with meals reduced blood glucose levels two hours after eating. Vinegar can be used to season food, alone or as part of a dressing or sauce. Whisk it into vinaigrettes and use it to deglaze pans on the stovetop to make quick and delicious pan sauces. Or add a splash of vinegar to bone broth to maximize the release of minerals and gelatin from the bones. Look for unsweetened, unpasteurized vinegars without any additives or learn how to make your own. For the full probiotic effect, avoid heating raw vinegar.

#4 | Mustard
Mustard can be used to season foods directly or incorporated into recipes. Dry, powdered mustard seeds can be used in dry rubs and spice mixes. In condiment form it acts as an emulsifier and binds together oil and vinegar when making vinaigrette. A good home-made vinaigrette can season any salad, cooked vegetable, or protein, and it can even be used as a marinade. Look for mustard in glass jars without chemical additives or make it yourself. (Soak dry mustard seeds in plenty of vinegar for 24 hours, then purée them with a pinch of sea salt and enough vinegar to achieve a smooth consistency.)

#5 | Fermented Foods 
Our bodies contain ten times more microbial cells than human cells and two hundred times more microbial genes than human genes and we wouldn’t live long without them. Studies of germ-free environments have shown that a diverse and balanced microbiome is essential for the normal development and function of important body systems. Friendly bacteria protect us from disease-causing bacteria, help digest our food, break down environmental toxins, manufacture essential nutrients, modulate the immune system, help regulate inflammation, influence the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, and play an important role in appetite, satiety, energy usage, and even the way we accumulate fat. Because lacto-fermented and cultured foods support a healthy microbiome, they should be a regular part of our diet. Look products preserved in glass jars like pickles, olives, sauerkraut, kim chi, umeboshi, fish sauce, tamari (soy sauce made from fermented soy beans), and miso (a paste made from fermented soy beans that when stirred into hot water makes a rich and savory broth).

#6 | Dried Beans
Beans are inexpensive, widely available, versatile, and full of fiber and plant-based protein. They can be cooked as a side dish, added to soups and salads, or puréed into sauces, dips, and spreads. Look for dried varieties like garbanzo, kidney, black, pinto, adzuki, and cannellini beans. Soak them for 24 hours before simmering in bone broth or water until tender, then season with sea salt and store them in the cooking liquid. (The leftover cooking liquid, also known as bean broth, can be used as a vegetarian alternative to bone broth if you use water to cook the beans.)

#7 | Canned Fish 
Fish and seafood are an excellent source protein, vitamin D, and essential fats we can’t get anywhere else. Look for varieties that are high in omega-3s and low in environmental toxins like sardines, Atlantic mackerel, wild Alaskan salmon, and anchovies sold in BPA-free cans. 

#8 | Tomatoes 
Compared to fresh tomatoes, preserved varieties can contain significantly more lycopene, a powerful antioxidant being studied for its protective role against cancer. Preserved tomatoes can be used in soups, stews, stuffed vegetables, braises, and sauces. Look for products in glass jars (like passata or tomato purée) or BPA-free cans.

#9 | Aromatics
Aromatics like onions, shallots, garlic, and ginger don’t just add flavor to foods, they have health benefits as well. They’ve been shown to improve blood sugar control by reducing fasting glucose and insulin levels and they may also help prevent and treat infections like colds and flu. Store garlic, onions, shallots, and ginger in a cool, dry place. 

#10 | Dried Herbs and Spices
Like fresh aromatics, dried herbs and spices add flavor to foods and many of them have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity in the body. Staples include cinnamon, chili peppers or cayenne, cumin, and turmeric. Turmeric should always be eaten in combination with ground black peppercorn because it’s poorly absorbed on its own but when combined with black pepper, absorption increases by 2,000 percent. Dried herbs and spices do have a shelf life, so buy them in small quantities and use them frequently. If you can, buy them whole and grind them yourself just before you use them.

#11 | Coconut
Coconut is a good source of healthy fat and fiber and it comes in many forms: coconut oil, coconut milk, shredded coconut, coconut flakes, and coconut flour. Add them to granola, oatmeal, yogurt, and savory dishes like curry and stir fry. Coconut milk can be used as an alternative to cow’s milk and coconut flour can be used, in part, as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flour. Look for unsweetened products without any additives. Avoid coconut milk marketed as a beverage. Coconut milk should only contain two ingredients: coconut extract and water. Buy it frozen or in BPA-free cans. 

#12 | Raw Nuts and Seeds
Raw nuts and seeds are a rich source of essential fats and plant-based protein. Nuts and seeds contain a high percentage of unsaturated fatty acids, so buy them raw (untoasted) and protect them from heat and light inside air-tight glass jars stored in the fridge or freezer.

References are available upon request. 

Dr. Sarah Cimperman, ND is a naturopathic doctor in private practice in New York City and author of the book, The Prediabetes Detox: A Whole-Body Program to Balance Your Blood Sugar, Increase Energy, and Reduce Sugar Cravings. Follow Dr. Cimperman on Facebook, Twitter and her blogs, A Different Kind of Doctor and The Naturopathic Gourmet. Find her at www.drsarahcimperman.com

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